If you’ve been noticing that your fingers, elbows and/or knees feel stuck and sore at times, the reason could be arthritis.
“Arthritis can best be defined as tenderness and swelling of one or more joints, and typically can be associated with joint stiffness and pain,” says Tamika Henry, M.D., M.B.A., a board-certified family physician and founder of Unlimited Health Institute
The Arthritis Foundation reports that there are more than 100 different forms of arthritis and related diseases. An estimated 58.5 million adults in the U.S. are living with arthritis and medical experts believe the number of sufferers will grow as the younger generation ages, states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Controlling certain risk factors can help decrease your chances of being diagnosed with some types of arthritis, as well as minimizing the symptoms associated with existing arthritis, says Ritu Madan, D.O., a rheumatology specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Losing weight can reduce stress on the joints, particularly on the hips and knees,” she explains.
Protecting your joints, such as wearing proper shoes and avoiding injuries, can also help keep some forms of arthritis at bay, along with arthritis from worsening. “Therefore, choose activities that are easier on the joints, like biking, walking, and swimming,” she continues.
If these activities are no longer an option, consider water aerobics, chair yoga, resistant training with your own body weight, and stretching. “The point is to continue to move,” stresses Dr. Henry (who was diagnosed in childhood with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis).
Tossing out the cigarettes may prevent or lessen symptoms since smoking can cause stress on the connective tissues. And lastly, keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“Regular exercise is the key ingredient,” emphasizes Dr. Madan. “The more we sit, the more our joints are inactive—and this feeds a vicious cycle of more joint issues. Plus, being physically active not only supports bone health, but it can also improve sleep, function, mood, and overall quality of life.”
It is essential to determine the form of arthritis affecting your joints. Here, we highlight five common types:
OA is a degenerative joint disease where the tissues in the entire joint break down, as defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The CDC states it is sometimes referred to as the wear-and-tear type of arthritis. “The protective cartilage that cushions the end of the bones wears down, and this is a slow process that worsens overtime,” adds Dr. Madan. Either one or more parts of the body can be affected, typically the hands, shoulders, spine, knees, and/or hips.
“The recent data currently supports that age and obesity are involved in the pathogenesis of osteoarthritis, along with injury to the cartilage,” says Levi Harrison, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and creator of the hand, wrist, and forearm strengthening device My Try-Angle. “Also, an injury to a joint—such as an intra-articular tibia fracture, wrist fracture, or meniscal injury [like a torn meniscus]—can cause post-traumatic injuries to the joints that can progress to osteoarthritis.”
OA is the most common type of arthritis, according to the NIH, where the CDC reports it affects over 32.5 million adults in the U.S. It affects both men and women, where men are more likely to show symptoms before the age of 45 and women more likely after turning 45, per the National Institute on Aging.
Pain, aching, or tenderness in the joints
Severe pain (only if the joints rub together)
Stiffness in the joints, usually more noticeable upon waking and during prolonged periods of inactivity
Loss of flexibility
Daily exercise, including cardio, strengthening exercises, and balance exercises which move through full range of motion. “This includes at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week,” states Dr. Harrison.
Physical therapy. “This is one of my biggest recommendations since I'm a big believer in that if you strengthen your muscles and joints, it will help with the pain,” says Dr. Madan.
Over-the-counter medications, including pain relievers and topical gels
Prescriptions medications, including cortisone injections, antidepressants, and anti-seizure drugs
Surgery (as a last resort). “Joint replacement surgery is a possibility when both pain and a decrease in function affect the quality of your life,” adds Dr. Harrison.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
RA is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease. “The body’s immune system attacks its own tissues, so it’s an autoimmune phenomenon,” explains Dr. Madan. She adds that RA is a systemic disease, meaning it can affect organs (such as the eyes, mouth, heart, lungs, or liver), as well. “The inflammation can lead to joint damage, deformity, and disability.”
RA occurs in more women than men (nearly three to one), states the CDC. While it can start during middle age, symptoms tend to surface in older adults, according to the NIH. It is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis and affects approximately 14 million people around the world, reports the World Health Organization (WHO).
Tenderness, stiffness, and pain in more than one joint
Same symptoms occurring on both sides of the body (such as pain in both wrists)
Complications occurring in organs
Unexplained weight loss
Prescription medications, such as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biologic agents
Surgery, such as joint fusion or joint replacement (as a last resort). “My goal is to diagnose patients early and treat the issues aggressively so we can prevent surgery, joint damage, and disability,” adds Dr. Madan.
Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread muscle pain that is also accompanied by fatigue and difficulty sleeping. “It is a chronic, non-life-threatening condition in which pain and tenderness presents throughout the body, including the muscles and joints,” states Dr. Henry. The Arthritis Foundation defines it as a pain disorder caused by a dysfunction of the central nervous system.
Dr. Henry adds there is no known cause or cure for fibromyalgia.
According to statistics from the CDC, fibromyalgia affects nearly 4 million adults in the U.S. where women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with this condition. While it can start during middle age, symptoms tend to surface in older adults. Research indicates that possible risk factors including genetics, obesity, viral infections, traumatic events, and repetitive joint injuries.
Pain and stiffness throughout the body
Numbness or tingling in hands and feet
Increased sensitivity to pain, light, scents, noises, and temperature
Headaches and/or migraines
Regular exercise, such as muscle strengthening workouts
Behavioral therapy. “It’s important to address anxiety and depression, and to learn stress reduction techniques that may help control the symptoms,” says Dr. Madan.
Over-the-counter medications, such as pain relievers
Prescription medications, such as nerve paid medications and anti-depressants
Gout is a painful inflammatory form of arthritis, states Dr. Henry. “It is associated with a sudden onset of intense attacks of pain, swelling, and tenderness most commonly due to a crystal called uric acid.” The NIH explains that uric acid, which is the breakdown of a substance known as purines found in the body’s tissues and a few foods, is meant to dissolve in the blood, then pass through the kidneys and urine. However, if it doesn’t, it forms needle-like crystals and builds up in the joints.
“Gout used to be called the ‘king’s disease’ because it can be caused by rich food and wine, but this type of diet has become more prevalent in our society, so I do not consider it the ‘king’s disease,’” adds Dr. Madan.
Men are three times more likely than women to experience gout since they tend to have higher levels of uric acid throughout their lives, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Women’s uric acid levels increase after menopause.
Common lifestyle risk factors include obesity, drinking alcohol, consuming foods and drinks high in sugar, and eating purine-rich foods, including red meat, organ meats, and seafood, states the CDC. Having a pre-existing cardiovascular condition (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart failure) can also increase the likelihood of a gout attack. It has been associated with certain, medication such as diuretics (a water pill), says Dr. Henry.
Sudden, intense pain along the big toe. “Patients have described a gout attack as something that wakes them up in the night with the sensation that their big toe is on fire,” explains Dr. Madan.
Swelling and pain in the ankle and knees, possibly also elbows and fingers. “The affected joints are typically described as hard, swollen, and tender where even the weight of a bed sheet may feel intolerable,” she adds.
Over-the-counter medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen
Prescription medications, including steroids (taken orally or via injection) or an anti-inflammatory drug
Lifestyle modifications to decrease future gout attacks, including dietary changes, weight loss, and increased water intake
Systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE is a complex autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks its own tissues. SLE can cause inflammation throughout the body affecting the joints, as well as the skin, kidneys, brain, heart, lungs, and blood vessels, says Dr. Madan.
Symptoms may go into remission. However, medical attention is necessary since this condition can range from mild to life-threatening, reports the CDC.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, SLE is the most common form of lupus where approximately 90% of cases occur in women during their reproductive years. The CDC reports that minority racial and ethnic groups have a higher risk of developing SLE compared to caucasians.
Furthermore, the Lupus Foundation of America estimates 1.5 million Americans (and at least 5 million people around the world) have a form of lupus.
Pain and swelling in the joints
Shortness of breath
Sensitivity to the sun
Prescription medications, including immunosuppressive drugs and biologic agents, as well as other meds to treat individual complications
Over-the-counter medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen
Lifestyle modifications, including exercising regularly and wearing sunscreen with an SPF of at least 35, adds Dr. Madan
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